Keane fires Irish belief as France's fears mount

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The Independent Football

Tomorrow night is the reason why Brian Kerr, the Republic of Ireland manager, worked so hard to persuade Roy Keane to return to international football. The Irish face France here and once the World Cup draw was made earlier this year it redoubled Kerr's efforts to bring back the 33-year-old midfielder. Kerr knew that against such opponents he could not do without the man who walked out on Ireland's last appearance in the finals.

The difference that Keane makes was underlined yesterday by Clinton Morrison. "When you are sitting in the dressing-room before the game and you see Roy sitting there it's a massive boost and confidence-wise it feels as good as a goal start," the Birmingham City striker said. "He is such a massive presence, the other team are scared of him. Especially without Patrick Vieira, France will not fancy taking us on, and with Roy in the side they will know they are in for a tough game."

Indeed, Keane has adopted a more influential role off-the-field since his return, even if he has not resumed the captaincy, adding to the belief that he already has half an eye on one day succeeding Kerr.

"He has high standards and that is why he has achieved what he has in the game and to not listen to him would be foolish," Morrison said. "He will still slaughter you on the pitch and in training if you give the ball away - but I like that part of him."

It was Keane himself who was guilty of losing possession in the previous World Cup qualifier (away to Switzerland, when Morrison scored), but he has regained his fitness since then. His return - and the French disarray - has led to a dangerous optimism from the Irish and their 35,000 fans travelling to Paris.

"The onus is on them to win," said Morrison on France, "and being at home means that they will be expected to do so." Indeed, the French public will not tolerate another poor performance from the former world and European champions and may, with ticket sales slow, be outnumbered at the Stade de France. Ireland may feel the backlash.

The French have been hit by a spate of retirements, injuries and suspensions - the reason for Vieira's absence - and just 10 of the 23-strong squad from Euro 2004 remain. If they lose, their coach, Raymond Domenech, who succeeded Jacques Santini and has aggravated many leading players, brought in a number of petty rules and disastrously changed the formation, may find himself out of a job after just four games.

There has also been a public questioning of Thierry Henry's performances with the daily sports newspaper L'Equipe devoting its first three pages yesterday to "The Henry Mystery". The striker has scored just twice in his last 10 games and is accused of reserving his best form for Arsenal. Domenech said that Henry's problem was he was "trying too hard". "People want more from Thierry. They want him to score goals all the time," Domenech said and this adds to the pressure. "He takes too much responsibility on himself."

Domenech went on to claim that Henry's Arsenal team-mate, Robert Pires, needs to be under "more pressure" and this has led to the belief that the future of the player who has been capped 77 times, more than any other in the squad, may depend on how he performs against Ireland.

"You can't compare the way we play with the club and the way we play for France," said Pires. "I'm starting my fifth season there [at Arsenal], so there are players I just know by heart."

Against such a background it is easy to see why the Irish believe they can gain their first victory in Paris for 67 years.

Another Keane, Robbie, who is Morrison's strike partner, was certainly in bullish mood. "We're not going there to defend," said the striker. "We're going to try and win the game." Keane acknowledged that "there's a danger in not expecting France to play well".

The 24-year-old needs just one goal to become Ireland's record goal-scorer. He currently ties with Niall Quinn on 21. "It would be great to break the record," he said "if only because it would mean everybody wouldn't be asking me about it all the time."

They are unlikely to stay silent if he does so against France, however.

FRANCE (v Republic of Ireland, Paris, tomorrow): Barthez; Gallas, Givet, Squillaci, Silvestre; Dacourt, Mavuba, Pires, Wiltord; Henry, Cisse.